On December 17, 1862, General Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the Department of Tennessee for the Union Army, ordered “Jews, as a class,” to be expelled from the department, which stretched from Cairo, Illinois, to northern Mississippi, on pain of arrest if they did not leave within twenty-four hours of receiving the order. On receiving the order — General Orders No. 11 — Cesar Kaskel, a Prussian Jewish immigrant who lived in Paducah, Kentucky, took immediate action. On December 28 he sent a telegram of protest to President Abraham Lincoln and a few days later set out for Washington. On January 3, 1863, he met with Lincoln, and on January 4, Lincoln countermanded Grant’s order.
As Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University and author of American Judaism: A History, recounts the story, General Orders No. 11 marks a pivotal point in American Jewish history. Sarna notes the ugly rise in anti-Semitism during the Civil War — a sentiment that persisted well into the twentieth century — and the stigmatization of “Jews, as a class,” stirring ages-old memories among Jews in a country they believed to be different. But Sarna also reports the widespread revulsion, from President Lincoln to state and federal legislators to the newspapers that covered the order extensively, to the idea of singling out a class of people rather than individual malefactors. A small minority comprising only about half a percent of the American population, Jews were empowered by their ability to reverse General Orders No. 11 and gained personal and political confidence from the incident. In the election of 1868, when Grant ran for the presidency, Jews openly weighed the election issues from both the national and Jewish point of view.
Historians disagree on Grant’s attitude toward Jews. Sarna finds him a sympathetic figure, pointing to his public apologies and regret for the order, probably provoked by the smuggling that undermined the war effort, that dogged his career. In his presidency Grant was an outspoken advocate for human rights domestically and internationally, and appointed Jews to more posts than any previous president. When General Grant Expelled the Jews records a little noted event in American Jewish history that reveals a great deal about Jewish-American life before the great immigrations of the late nineteenth century. This is a volume in the Nextbook series. Chronology, illustrations, index, notes.
Maron L. Waxman, retired editorial director, special projects, at the American Museum of Natural History, was also an editorial director at HarperCollins and Book-of-the-Month Club.